On June 7, former field marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was inaugurated as Egypt’s new president, having been elected with no less than 97 percent of the vote. The result of what was called a “free but not fair” election is that Egypt has its fifth president in three and a half years. It’s the start of another new chapter in Egypt’s chaotic revolutionary process.
Sisi’s priorities—from restoring law and order to promoting investment—are ambitious, and he will need time and support to address the huge challenges his country faces. The EU should give Egypt’s new president a chance.
The country Sisi has inherited after thirty years of rule by former president Hosni Mubarak and three years of chaos is in a dreadful state. Tourism—Egypt’s main source of income—has collapsed. The number of tourists has fallen by 33 percent since 2011. Desperate tour guides and camel owners at the pyramids of Giza see only a few tourists a day.
Subsidies for bread and fuel are devouring the state’s budget. Education and healthcare are below every standard. Teachers and police officers cannot survive on the €30 ($41) they earn a month. Energy shortages cause several power cuts a day, sometimes lasting for up to five hours. On top of that, there is a problem of security, with extremist groups operating in the Sinai Peninsula but also in Cairo.
No wonder that Egyptians have set their hopes on a new strongman. They see Sisi’s military background as an asset. As one institution after another has collapsed, the army is probably the only pillar of the state that still seems to work. The people’s expectations are huge.
Sisi knows that. He also knows that the higher the hopes, the deeper the anger and disappointment will be if he fails. And he knows that given the inefficiency of Egypt’s large bureaucracy, fast change is almost impossible. That’s why Sisi was careful not to promise anything during his presidential campaign. In his first interview of the campaign, he even warned the people that they would have to work harder and that their lives would not improve in the first two years of his mandate.
So what is Sisi going to do? Based on conversations I have had with several actors close to the new president, I see three areas on which he will focus: restoring security and law and order; encouraging investment; and pursuing a new nationalist discourse.
Restoring security was the main theme of the election campaign. It is an obvious priority in a country where tourists stay away out of fear of terrorist attacks. For years, Sinai has been a safe haven for all kinds of criminals and terrorists. But Sisi’s plans on law and order go much further than fighting terrorism. On the day of his inauguration, a girl was sexually assaulted during the celebrations on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. For the first time, an Egyptian president went to visit the victim of such an attack and acknowledged and condemned the facts. And for the first time, the perpetrators were arrested.
This security and law and order agenda is something Egypt needs very much. The danger, however, is that it may lead to a serious crackdown of everyone who doesn’t fit the government’s agenda. Calling all members of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists, or branding revolutionary activists and journalist as traitors, rolls back the freedoms that Egyptians have obtained since the 2011 revolution that ousted Mubarak.
Sisi’s second priority—large-scale investment—is slowly unfolding, too. The president is seeking investment of no less than $140 billion. The United Arab Emirates has already promised $40 billion for a massive housing project. Saudi Arabia, together with the Egyptian government, will organize a donor conference at which it hopes to attract the other $100 billion to construct roads, airports, and even entire new towns.
At the same time, plans are being made for big solar and wind energy plants. The good news is that these investments will give the Egyptian economy a boost. The bad news is that most contracts will go to the army.
The third focus that can be expected from Sisi is a new nationalist discourse. He surprised many observers on June 13 by taking a cycle ride in Cairo, sending the message that bicycles save energy. Sisi will likely make many more similar media performances, urging the people to change their attitudes and work harder.
However, the president will no doubt also criticize the Muslim Brotherhood, which he and his followers have accused of having a non-Egyptian agenda. Sisi has even said openly that there will be no such thing as the Muslim Brotherhood during his presidency.
This is exactly the weak point of the new president’s agenda. Part of the population sees him as illegitimate. Many of his opponents boycotted the election and will now boycott his plans. They might have limited support and no strategy, but repression of the opposition might lead to the failure of one or more items on Sisi’s agenda.
It also remains an open question whether all these plans will be sufficient to deal with Egypt’s largest challenge: a demographic explosion. In the last forty years, Egypt’s population has doubled, and the growth rate is not slowing down. Fifty percent of the Egyptians are aged under twenty-five. They need jobs, houses, and space and are changing the country’s entire social fabric. Against this tsunami of change, the revolution was just a small beginning.
In the face of this situation, the EU should give Sisi a chance, just as it gave former president Mohamed Morsi a chance. Given the enormous challenges it faces, Egypt will need time and support. That doesn’t mean the EU should remain silent about violations of democracy and human rights. On the contrary, as long as activists, journalists, and others remain in jail without charge, Egypt is failing the promises of the revolution.
Maybe this is also the right moment to change some of Europe’s strategies. Europeans should look at how to invest in the people of the Southern neighborhood rather than in its governments.
The EU should start with education. It should drastically enlarge its Erasmus Mundus cooperation and mobility program and raise the amount of full scholarships for those seeking to study in Europe. And it should organize affordable European schools in Egypt. Only by investing in the education of Egypt’s youth will Europe invest in Egypt’s future—whoever is in power.
Koert Debeuf lives in Cairo, where he is the representative of the European Parliament’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe to the Arab world. He is the author of Inside the Arab Revolution: Three years on the front-line of the Arab Spring.